Case Studies vs. Survey

I recently was offered a position to teach art history next year at a local university. I will be teaching an introductory art history course that covers Renaissance to contemporary art. I’m excited to teach this class – it will be a new challenge for me, since this art history program focuses on teaching case studies for each period, instead of the traditional method of a survey course (where students learn about/memorize artists, works of art, dates, etc.). Instead of using the texts Gardner’s Art Through the Ages or Stokstad’s Art History, I will be teaching out of the Art and Its Histories series. These books are structured with one specific case study for each major period in art. The case studies focus on a specific artist, a group of similar works of art, or a common theme in art.

The textbook which introduces the Renaissance – Rococo art is The Changing Status of the Artist (edited by Emma Barker, Nick Webb and Kim Woods). So far, I like the things that are introduced in this book. It seems to help students think critically about art and art history (the introduction wastes no time in explaining how the “artist as genius” idea is a construct), and it also introduces ideas by major art historians. This stress on critical thinking and art historical arguments is something that I think is important – and I also think that it is missing from the major survey texts that tend to be a little to authoritative (and not leave room for questions or debate). So, I think the class will be fun to teach. These smaller case studies and ideas also generate a lot of room for discussion in class, which should be fun.

I also worry though, about how to find a good balance between teaching survey material and these case studies. I feel like there is a lot of value to the survey course – while it is necessary to learn how to think critically, it is also important to learn about stylistic characteristics, major artists, influential works of art, etc. I also feel like some of the works of art that are selected in these books might not be the most indicative of the stylistic traits from certain periods – but does that matter? I’m trying to decide that.

The faculty is very awesome and have given me complete leniency with my lesson plans. I’m going to use these books for sure, but I also hope to find a good balance by introducing other important information and concepts that aren’t mentioned in the case studies.

If you have taken an introductory art history class, what was yours like? Did you take a survey? Or did you focus on case studies? What textbooks did you use? What things did or didn’t you like about the class structure?

  • ixoj says:

    I've taken only art history survey classes and quite enjoyed them. Perhaps you could use outside sources to mix the two together?

  • M says:

    Yeah, I'm planning on doing something like that. Hopefully I can come up with a good mix of general information and the case studies – especially since there are both majors and non-majors in my class. We'll see!

  • A Super Dilettante says:

    Hello M. When I was an undergraduate student, I went to a very traditional art history department (so many professors I met are from Courtauld Institute of Art in London). It can be quite dry looking at slides after slides. We also have to do horrid exams called slide tests which include unseen images to test your knowledge in history of art. We never studied any survey or case studies. It would have been fascinating to have recent book that came out entitled "The Lost Mona Lisa" by RA Scotti , as one of the classroom textbooks. My professors would have shocked.

  • M says:

    Wow, A Super Dilettante, that's awful that your education just revolved around looking at slides. I was required to do slide identification when I was in school, but it sounds nothing like the extreme to which you were exposed. Yikes! I definitely will make sure that my students are not required to do anything like that.

    (I've gathered that the Courtauld Institute is extremely conservative. I once worked with an art museum director who got his PhD there, and I think he is the most traditional, conservative art historian that I have ever met.)

    And thanks for the book recommendation! I'm kind of obsessed about art crime books; I recently read one that briefly mentioned that the Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911. I'll have to check out that book!

  • heidenkind says:

    M~Thank you for visiting my blog. I love this post; I find the idea of teaching survey by using case studies fascinating. Please tell me how it works out with your students.

    I've taught one survey course and it was tough–for and for the students, I think. You're throwing so much information and images at them, and one has to wonder if it sticks for longer than it takes them to do the test. Maybe case studies would be more effective for giving them an idea of what is considered "Gothic" or "Renaissance."

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.